Former Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson is lined up for a peerage and the reactions are as predictable as dropping a fist-sized chunk of magnesium in a sink of water (©my high school Chemistry supply teacher).
“Reward for what?” is the standard printable response and one that underlines one of the two fundamental problems people have with the House of Lords. It’s seen as a reward by the government of the day to some notable grandees, be they donors, colleagues, or simply popular.
But that’s not what the House of Lords is for. Sure, there are ermine-clad chumps floating around, buoyant with brandy fumes and self-importance, having known the right person at the right time. You get that in any and every sector, transcending both history and geography. Look for the Hero with a Thousand Faces and at his side, you’ll see The Bonehead with a Thousand Flukes.
The House of Lords should not be a reward for leal service to the government. The House of Lords is one of Scotland’s blocks against the caprices of a high-handed clown in Number 10 who has surrounded himself with a coterie of goons selected for loyalty over competence. Not only do we need it as part of the UK, but we might need it in an independent Scotland. First, there are lessons we need to learn from the current arrangement.
The House of Lords can’t unilaterally make law. In fact, while the two Houses are supposed to reach an agreement – and to be fair, they usually do – the House of Commons can overrule the Lords. In 1909, the Conservative-dominated House of Lords rejected a ‘People’s Budget’ proposed by Liberal PM David Lloyd George. In response, Lloyd George and the Commons used the 1911 Parliament Act to draw the fangs of the Lords, removing their ability to veto any money bills, and meaning they could only delay public bills for two years maximum (now one year). More recently, in 2000 the government used special powers under the Parliament Act to reduce the age of consent for gay couples to 16 in line with heterosexual couples. The measure had been blocked by the Lords despite being approved by the Commons, so the Act was used to push it through.
So then, what is the House of Lords for?
It’s a debating, scrutinising, and overseeing chamber, one that upholds the constitutional provision of parliamentary sovereignty. The PM isn’t the head honcho in the UK – the House of Commons is, being composed of directly-elected MPs.
The Lords, not having to court tabloids or spin like weathervanes according to public opinion, can use their expertise to scrutinise bills before they become legislation. Particularly useful if you have a bam of a PM who’s been elected by 43.6% of the electorate on a 67.3% turnout, removed dissenters, and is hell-bent on driving the country towards a cliff-edge, keeping a tight hold of Scotland’s collar so it can’t reach the seatbelt. We know that Boris Johnson listens to Dominic Cummings and wants to keep hold of power. That’s it. He has no ideology, no principles, and no sense of a greater purpose. There is no little voice that tells Boris Johnson that he’s going too far, that his actions to hold power will have damaging consequences for the most vulnerable.
A kind person would theorise that Johnson’s Lords List is deliberately inflammatory, a clever strategy designed to provoke exactly the kind of outrage that builds support for abolishing the House of Lords. Cast your mind back to January of this year, for example, when they gave him five consecutive skelps in two days in defence of EU citizens, uniting child refugees with their families, and protecting devolution rights for Scotland and Wales by recognising the Sewel Convention in the Brexit Bill. Ultimately, it didn’t matter because First Past the Post is a rotted system that gave Boris Johnson a majority who cheerily overturned all five amendments. But it was symbolic. It showed Boris Johnson and his ilk that there are people paying close attention to what he’s doing – people who don’t have to toe an editorial line, or obey a whip, or keep their mouths shut because they’re already planning for the next election.
Does being good at cricket qualify you to analyse policy? Should you be rewarded for supporting the Prime Minister by encouraging people to vote against your own party? The criticism that unelected representatives shouldn’t have political authority is one that’s hard to refute, especially if you object to Dominic ‘Teflon beanie’ Cummings oozing around. But it’s one that delves deep into the heart of political philosophy. Why do we elect politicians in the first place? To represent us because we don’t have time to schlep to the town hall in person every time a decision needs to be made. We don’t elect Special Advisers, but we’ve elected the people who employ their services and follow their advice. We, the electorate, are the first step in a process of political delegation. That’s why we have ‘career politicians’ – they’re people who know which strings to pull, can push a Bill through, and have years of experience in the field before they squeeze into a space on the green leather. We also need politicians who’ve had a life before politics and can bring first-hand experiences to the table, personalising the political.
Now imagine an independent Scotland. We have an advantage because our Parliament is designed so that no one party should get a majority, and we’ve managed to combine the best parts of two electoral systems by adopting the additional member system. Don’t like your constituency MSP? That’s alright, you’ve got list members too. We have a more representative democratic system than the Westminster setup, and while the 2013 Scotland’s Future paper said the Constitutional Convention would consider whether to change an independent Scotland’s electoral system, it’s reasonable to assume we’ll stick with proportional representation.
Scotland’s Future proposed no second chamber. But given the example of the seemingly-invincible Conservative government in Westminster, a House of Lairds is an increasingly attractive option. It may not be able to make laws, but it would be powerful enough to challenge a government without the party politics of opposition MSPs.
Some have suggested it be entirely elected, akin to the US Senate where each Senator is elected by popular vote to represent an entire state. That’s too explicitly political and besides, unless we rethink our boundaries, that’s not going to fly in Scotland’s low-density, mile-broad areas where the difference between the needs of, say, Inverness and Thurso is fewer apples and oranges, more apples and porcupines. We already have a directly-elected chamber of constituency (FPTP) and list (PR) MSPs. They’ll be making the laws.
A second chamber composed of experts and tasked with going through every bit of legislation line by line to provide advice and a second ‘look’, would be nothing but beneficial if done correctly. We’ve been fortunate in Scotland to have a First Minister willing to eschew party politics in favour of useful advice – for example, her Standing Council on Europe began with advisors including Labour MEP David Martin, UK diplomat Dame Mariot Leslie, and Professor Alan Miller, former chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission. Yes, Sir George Reid and Alyn Smith were in there, but it certainly wasn’t jobs for the boys. Let’s continue that process of listening to all the voices.
Instead of having to chase headlines and favourable press, our second chamber would be free to draft and propose legislation for consideration by our MSPs and to analyse, suggest tweaks, and generally assist with legislation without owing their continued position to political favour. A recognised part of our governing system, composed of experts with decades of relevant experience under their belts, both in politics and further afield.
Make it a time-limited term if you want, ensure each is appointed on their own merit instead of on a hereditary principle, ditch the pomp and ermine – whatever it takes to make it work. If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that governments need checks and balances, otherwise the only interests upheld might be those of an even more select group than the Lords.
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In 1909, the Conservative-dominated House of Lords rejected a ‘People’s Budget’ proposed by Liberal PM David Lloyd George. In response, Lloyd George and the Commons used the 1911 Parliament Act to draw the fangs of the Lords, removing their ability to veto any money bills, and meaning they could only delay public bills for two years maximum (now one year). https://www.parliament.uk/about/how/laws/parliamentacts/